Energy Secretary Steven Chu today warned that "time is running out" for the U.S. to be the global leader in clean-energy technologies because China and other countries are racing ahead.
Chu gave a speech at the National Press Club where he suggested that the U.S. is reaching a "Sputnik moment" where political leaders and the general population will realize how the U.S. has fallen behind other countries in science and technology.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite to orbit the Earth, one of the seminal moments in launching the government-led space program in the U.S. The space program captured the imagination of engineers and scientists at the time and yielded advances in many fields.
Chu said that the U.S. needs to fund research in clean-energy technologies in order to stay apace and take advantage of the economic opportunity that cleaner energy technologies represent globally.
"America still has the opportunity to lead in a world that will need a new industrial revolution to give us energy we want inexpensively and carbon free," he said during his presentation, which was Webcast. (Click for PDF of slides.) "I think time is running out."
The stimulus package provided a one-time investment bulge in a range of fields, including research to invent new technologies and loan guarantees to scale up existing products. Before the stimulus, though, the percentage of money dedicated to energy research and development has trended down since 1979, Chu said.
He said there are risks in the status quo which were detailed in a report called Business Plan for America's Future which was authored by business leaders including Bill Gates, venture capital investor John Doerr, GE CEO Jeff Immelt, and former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine.
The report said there are many benefits to moving to a cleaner energy system in the U.S., including public health, protection from climate change, and cleaner air, but none of these are recognized by the free market. Also, the scale of investment required in new energy technologies in beyond the scope of commercial companies, which is why the government should fund research and development.
Cutting research and development during the a slow economic period is "like removing an engine from an overloaded aircraft," Chu said, quoting former Lockheed Martin CEO Augustine.
Chu said the Energy Department has established two new research channels: ARPA-E, which is focused on breakthrough technology research within three to five years, and Energy Innovation Hubs, where larger groups of people at universities focus on specific areas, such as bio energy and building efficiency, for several years.
One lesson that the U.S. can learn from China is the importance of long-term planning and investment, Chu said.
The ARPA-E program, which is taking on challenges such as cheap electric-car batteries capable of a 500-mile range, could suffer from short-term policies. Although it was created as an agency a few years ago, it was first funded through the stimulus package and it is now in danger of not being renewed.
He added that the U.S. can collaborate with China and India in development and testing out new energy technologies.
Continuing energy-related policies pursued by the Obama administration faces a tougher time after the November elections where Republicans gained control of the House. But even politicians who are skeptical of climate change should recognize that investing in green-technology research and development is an economic decision, he said.
"I am hoping that the United States can recognize the economic opportunity that virtually all the western European companies have recognized, that countries in Asia have recognized, and that developing countries have recognized," he said. "I am an optimist we will wake up and seize the opportunity...The U.S. still has the greatest innovation engine in the world."